And Edwards hasn't exactly been a backbencher. During the Clinton impeachment trial, his skill as a trial lawyer was pressed into service. In 2000, the Gore campaign put him on its short list for running mate (after a thorough vetting of his life and law practice came through clean).
Still, Edwards suggests he hasn't lost his touch as an outsider, championing "little guy" causes in the Senate like patients' rights and prescription-drug costs.
"Really, what [voters] want is for you to see things through their eyes and understand what their problems are," Edwards explains, nursing one of his ubiquitous Diet Cokes. "They know about the influence of big lobbyists in Washington, and it really bothers them."
If Edwards fails in his White House bid, he will get more experience as an outsider. Last month, he announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate, allowing him to focus on his presidential run.
Edwards For President began with big promise: He was the No. 1 fundraiser of the first quarter ($7.4 million). He attracted top staff and words of praise from Senate colleagues like Teddy Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona.
He remains the No. 3 fundraiser of the Democratic presidential candidates, but he is burning off funds faster than they're coming in. Some aides have moved on to other campaigns. Even after extensive on-the-ground campaigning and TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, he's mired in the middle of the pack in both states. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg suggests the problem may boil down to Edwards's youthful appearance on television.
The bright spot of his campaign is his birthplace, South Carolina, where polls have him on top.
And Hollywood, fertile fundraising ground for Democrats, remains interested. Quietly observing from the sidelines at several recent Iowa events was Skip Paul, a Hollywood executive and Edwards donor. "I'm just seeing how he's doing," Mr. Paul said. Actor Ashton Kutcher is cohosting a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Edwards on Oct. 29.